Walking in Mom’s Footsteps


Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in our country.  Or so I am told.  Here on the Left Coast we’re all supposed to be tall, tanned and svelte, spending our lunch hours playing volleyball on the beach, our weekends beating our personal 10K bests.  (Okay, if you say so.)  Silly as that sounds, you must be blind not to notice a growing degree of girth in our nation, most alarmingly among kids.

Yes—news flash, millions struggle to keep the pounds from piling up, and God knows I’m one of them.  Let’s face it:  after age forty your body just naturally wants to sit in a Barcalounger®; and dieting alone is simply not enough to maintain a healthy weight.

Now my mother, Peg Bracken—who advocated eating and drinking pretty much what you wanted in moderation, never really had a weight problem.  She walked a treadmill daily well into her eighties, propping an enlarged-print book in front of her and striding on for an hour or so.

Likewise, because the Great American Media Machine tells me I need to lose five pounds to be happy, I walk in Mom’s footsteps, mounting the elliptical trainer most days like some two-legged hamster.   The only difference is, I’ve got NPR on the headphones, or my favorite crime show on the flat screen.

At the other extreme, I know many grey-haired folks who push themselves to the limit athletically and eat like a hummingbird trying to look like a twenty-something.  But does having a six pack or buns of steel really make you a beautiful human being?  I wonder.

In the end, I again find myself following my mother’s advice, which was:  enjoy cooking and eating as two of life’s many pleasures.  Exercise regularly to avoid getting fat.  And maybe spend a bit more time trying to love and accept what you see in the mirror.

September 25, 2010 at 8:05 am 1 comment

Suffering the Slings and Arrows


Well, I’m happy to say the newly released I Hate to Cook Book has found an eager audience, and is selling well.  The book is now in its third printing.  My publisher is still cheerfully answering my calls and e-mails.  And the majority of reviews have been quite favorable. 

Good thing.  Because, unlike my mother, Peg Bracken (who had rhinoceros skin when it came to bad press), I tend to take criticism to heart.  There have been one or two unkind critics who have looked dimly upon the idea of bringing out the book again.  And while Mom would surely slough these off if she were here, I admit to bristling when I read them.   (It’s not even my book, for heaven’s sake.) 

Now, under most circumstances I’m decisive and confident.  I’ve founded two successful businesses, and in my early retirement I’ve quickly transformed a passionate avocation into a packed weekly agenda.  Call me the classic go-getter.  Whatever.  It hardly matters.  Because despite my confidence in some areas, I simply do not have what it takes to endure what my author-mother and most artists do every day:  face the self-imposed censure that comes with the process of creation, then subject themselves to the glare of critics and fans. 

The predominance of the Internet, blogging and social media have sharpened this debate, I believe, inviting more non-professionals to throw their hat in the ring, and giving more people in general a bully pulpit from which to sound off.  But it’s also given the cover for some pretty shrill language and a lot of anonymous stone throwing.

At any rate, hats off to those artists who willingly lay themselves bare.  And, yes, a nod of respect for professional critics who have mastered the delicate art of disapproval without disrespect.

September 17, 2010 at 11:41 am 2 comments

Keen on the Cat’s Meow


My mother once painted a small panel that read, “Everything tastes better with a little pet hair.”  Now, she wasn’t talking about man’s best friend but mankind’s faithful feline companion, the venerable cat.

Yes, Peg Bracken was a dyed-in-the-fur tabby lover whose idyll was a rainy day spent curled up on the couch, a book in hand and little purr box beside you. 

Since cat lovers range from the merely adoring to the downright delusional, let me say that Mom ranked somewhere in the middle.  She treasured cats for their independence, transcendence, their charming disinterest in all non-cat matters, and their rather luxurious approach to life.  But she wasn’t kooky about it, far preferring the company of people.

Still, so many of her non-literary creations revolved around cats:  tapestries; wall hangers; sketches; book marks; painted panels like the one described above; or just quips jotted on scraps of paper.  You’d of thought she was part Egyptian.

She also made the mistake of announcing her appreciation to friends, family and fans and wound up amassing an enormous collection of cat décor and other tchotchkes, which she relegated to the bathroom to preserve her marriage.  More than one visitor was “unseated” by a clock that mewed at the top of the hour.

Mom had many cats over the course of her long life.  But her pride and joy was Aka, a lovable Siamese who loved being handled, and thought Peg Bracken’s lap was about the greatest place on Earth.  In stark contrast, her last pet—cloying named Peaches, turned out to be a psychotic creature who regularly greeted guests by mauling their outstretched hands.   Such a pity. 

Though more a dog lover, I have four cats of my own.   And while all are wonderful, one, Trouble, reminds me of Mom’s favorite through his near constant clinginess.  He’s always climbing up on me, brushing across my face, and treading boldly between me and my open book.  It’s so cute.  Then so annoying.  Right before I brush him aside I stop and wonder, is this the soul of Aka looking for a lap, or the spirit of my mother reminding me to be grateful for such wonderful companionship?

September 9, 2010 at 8:25 am Leave a comment

Food Can Be Fun


You’re not hungry.  But there you are, on the couch, reading a book with a sleeve of Fig Newtons® by your side.  When you finally close the cover you look over and are shocked to see there’s nothing left but a cellophane wrapper and trace evidence of the crime.  Or maybe you’re at the county fair.  Long after the cotton candy, deep-fried Snickers® bars, funnel cakes, churros and God knows what else, your ears still perk up when the barker yells, “Get yer Kettle corn right here!” 

No, it’s not snacking, nor the classic cry for love, nor a carpet party, but what I like to call ‘recreational eating’:  ritualistic, often wholesale consumption simply to romance the palate. 

FYI, I’m all in when it comes to this sort of thing.  I love county fairs.  And I can consume a cavalcade of crap, hop on a roller coaster, shake vigorously and still be swayed to suck down a Sloppy Joe.  Along with gawking at the bearded lady, profligate eating is all part of the fun.

My mother, Peg Bracken, on the other hand, never bought into this business.  Nevertheless, she did have a serious sweet tooth, most often sated with cookies and milk, doughnut holes (see my earlier post), or what she deemed the ultimate thrill ride, Sees Candy.

Unlike her daughter, she never “pigged out,” but treated Sees Candy much like precious jewels, hiding them from thieves (including yours truly), and bringing them out to savor one, maybe two at a time.  (Her favorites were dark chocolates with almonds.)

Far from quirky, Mom’s approach may well have been generational, I think.  Back in her day, stores offered one tenth the variety they do now, eating was centered around the classic “three squares,” and treats were just that, not part of one’s daily calorie count.

Obesity rates aside, we seem to have an adversarial, love-hate relationship with food.  Yet it’s one of the pleasures of life, isn’t it?  So unless you’re facing serious health problems, or having trouble buckling your seat belt, I say go ahead, stroll down the midway and enjoy the carnival.

September 1, 2010 at 1:59 pm 2 comments

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Mom


Are great artists made or born?  The answer is probably ‘both.’  But I can tell you that my mother, I Hate to Cook Book author Peg Bracken, was destined to write and create from the moment she drew breath.

In general, she was always writing, pen in hand or not.  A casual comment, or a passage from a book or newspaper article, could easily send her into the intellectual ether, parsing out a phrase under her breath until it sounded just right.  And in actuality she probably wrote something every day of her life—a short poem, a simple observation, or just a new phrase she wanted to coin.  (When my husband and I spurned martinis for awhile in favor of tonic, soda water and lime, she was so aghast that she went and crafted the phrase “marred-tini.”)

Even when she wasn’t writing, though, she was always doing something to get into that creative space.  An excellent caricaturist,  she sketched her own drawings for the Emily character who adorned On Growing Old for the First Time.  She fashioned hand-made paperback book covers (so you could read something racy, she said, without anyone knowing).  She made beautifully embroidered cloth hangings.  She forged jewelry from odd pieces of metal.  She sewed amazing Hawaiian quilts.

These were not hobbies or pastimes to her, but the very fabric of her day.

So what happened to me?  I founded two successful multi-million-dollar companies.   I’m on various executive boards.  I can do eight things at once.  So in my own way I guess I made Mom as proud (and in awe) of me as I was of her.  Yet, while I use my imagination plenty enough, don’t ask me to paint a picture, spin a pot or play a musical instrument. 

I once took a sewing class and spent nine months making a jumper I wouldn’t be caught dead in.  I tried knitting and never made it to purl two.  I crafted a long and gaudy blue scarf I laughingly dedicated to Isadora Duncan.

What did I inherit from my mother, then?  Along with a love of cats, martinis, Ireland, plus cookies and milk, an appreciation for the fact that one person’s waste of time is another’s way of life.

August 24, 2010 at 3:47 pm 1 comment

Fear and Loathing for Liver and Onions


Who likes liver and onions?  Not this gal.  Even penning the words causes a gag reflex.  And, at the risk of offending, I might even admit to being something of a food fascist in this way, seeing liver lovers as an outgrowth of an evolutionary branch that reached a dead end long ago.  Because, truthfully, I know of no one under age sixty-five who admits to liking this stuff.

In my view, where you stand in the liver-and-onions line-up goes far beyond a mundane Stones-versus-Beatles type of debate.   For instance, I can appreciate why someone might prefer mayonnaise on French fries, or mustard and ketchup on a hamburger.  I can sit shoulder-to-shoulder with those who sprinkle salt and pepper on cantaloupe (try it; you’ll like it).  And I fairly tolerate seeing sardines piled high on a soda cracker, utterly repugnant as it is.

But, back to my theory of evolution, I find Leakey’s Liver and Onions Man physiologically different than the rest of us in his ability to chew, swallow, keep down and digest something I simply cannot.

Alas and alack, my mom, Peg Bracken, also happened to love liver with onions, and tried—as I’m sure many readers’ parents did—serving it up and singing its praises.  (Good luck, Ma’!)

How many creative ploys did I hatch to avoid forcing those potty-tasting pieces down my throat?  Let me count the ways.  (And see how many of these you’ve tried yourself.)

  • Sandwiching them between you and the chair seat
  • Burying them in mashed potatoes
  • Faking a fainting spell
  • Making dinner table declamations with sweeping gestures that plop them into your dog’s waiting mouth
  • My personal specialty:  making mom pay by choking them down and waiting for the whole mess to come right back up again

Many IHTCB fans are my age and older.   And I’d be very interested in seeing where they stand on this issue.  But a word of warning:  send me no recipes; and I’ll tell you no lies.

August 13, 2010 at 8:47 am 4 comments

Eats on the Street


A friend phoned the other day.  A few minutes into the conversation it was clear she was calling from her car.  And amid occasional munching sounds I soon surmised she was grabbing a bite to eat at the same time.   Quick math told me she was one appendage short of the ability to either drive or dine safely.  (Shame on her: she still hasn’t gotten a hands-free headset.)  It made me shudder.  So did the vision of the woman (I’m not making this up) forking away at a plate of food balanced on the steering wheel while hurtling down the interstate.  I remember pulling over, flipping on the radio and waiting anxiously for the sig alert.

Put away the trade journals.  A good look around tells you it’s no longer about fast food but what the industry now calls ‘hand-held’ foods.  Not ‘on the go,’ mind you.  No, this is stuff is literally consumed while in motion—so far beyond burgers and burritos it’s not even funny. 

Seems we’re all in such a mad hurry get from here to there—or be done with our to-do lists—that we haven’t the time to sit down and eat.

No wonder the acknowledged master of the craft, McDonald’s, is now marketing the Big Mac Wrap, which calls to mind blinged out thugs, not the re-cloaked, straight-jacketed burger it truly is.  Backing this debut are, undoubtedly, focus group studies showing that the poor old sesame seed bun just couldn’t keep up.  

(Strap on a Budweiser Foam Dome, Cletus, and you’ve got yourself a freeway feast.)

Part of the appeal of the reissued I Hate to Cook Book, I suspect, is nostalgia over a time when a trip to the drive-through was an occasional treat, not the preferred way of putting food on the table.  I certainly hope that, scaling back and staying closer to home, families will look there for great, easy-to-make recipes that let them spend quality time together over supper. 

It beats the heck out of getting cited for dining while distracted.

August 4, 2010 at 3:02 pm 1 comment

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